Missing the point about baldfaced lying in memoirs

March 13, 2008

This NYT article plows through a number distinctions that should be made in discussions of whether or not any fabrication is permissible in works marketed as nonfiction.

  1. No one ever said that there isn’t space in memoirs for ambiguity, mystery, and imagination. You just shouldn’t say something actually happened when it didn’t, and you shouldn’t market your book as nonfiction if that is what you’d like to do. There are all kinds of ways to talk about things that aren’t factual as part of a memoir or autobiography–see Woman Warrior for a good example of this. The story in memoir does not have to be all facts, but you can’t lie about the facts that you say are there. I can imagine a very interesting memoir about how one is obsessed by thinking of oneself as a street tough druggie when one is actually a typical suburbanite. However, to just pass yourself off as the former when you are the latter is clearly a lie and should be marketed as such. And if it isn’t, there may well be legal ramifications (eg Clifford Irving, who wrote a biography btw, not a memoir).
  2. No one ever said that memoirs are bound to tell the whole truth. Selection and editing, sometimes to the point of skewing reality, are allowed, although broadening your perspective is often (though not always) necessary to craft a strong, compelling piece.
  3. I think it is a travesty to include Laura Albert (aka JT LeRoy) in a list with James Frey. She wrote fiction. She called it fiction. She was pretending to be someone else in her life, not her work. Fair enough, and any effort to hold memoirists accountable for what they claim as facts (which I would support) should make the distinction between lies in the work and lies in life. I care about the work, the other is, well, that’s life.
  4. This article supports the idea that people who demand honesty in memoirs are trying to kill creativity. I am tired of writers who have never studied or tried to work in the genre of creative nonfiction coming down on the side of the liars b/c they claim that to do otherwise would be to limit artists. Bulls***. There are plenty of ways to do whatever you want to do, and if you can’t figure them out it wasn’t telling the truth that stopped you.

5 Responses to “Missing the point about baldfaced lying in memoirs”

  1. Who wrote this crap? It is NOT a memoir. This shit did not happen. PERIOD. It is fiction. ONLY fiction. Do your home work. Fiction. Laura albert was NOT a 13 year boy, EVER. She did not hang out at a truck stop. EVER. She is a very sick, sad and unpleasant fat girl from NY.

  2. Incertus Says:

    And the point goes sailing over Alvin’s head like a rocket off Barry Bonds’s bat, headed for McCovey Cove, complete with a misogynist fat-hatred streak. Nice.

  3. Bradley Says:

    Very well said, Liz. All of it.

  4. jasmin Says:

    Hi, could i email you about this blog? trephammer@gmail.com

  5. Mary Says:

    Why do authors feel the need to write fake memoirs and call them authentic? Why not save your credibility and call them fictional memoirs?

    I just finished a wonderful “authentic” memoir called, “Nub, Story of an Ex-Cripple, by Emile Barrios. http://www.emilebarrios.com. I don’t believe I would have been as inspired by Emile’s challenges and successes if it was written fictionally. This is a wonderful story, I’m recommending it to friends and family of all ages. It has lessons for us all.

    My two-cents.

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